The Long Game 63: Fraudulent Health Research, Social Media Use & Wellbeing, Other-Optimizing, Alchemy
⌛ Timelapse of the Future, Prepping, Buddhism, Blas, Victimhood, Disunited Nations vs. Dawn of Eurasia, and Much More!
Hi there, it’s Mehdi Yacoubi, co-founder at Vital, and this is The Long Game Newsletter. To receive it in your inbox each week, subscribe here:
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In this episode, we explore:
Fraudulent health research
Restricting social media use for emotional wellbeing
Beware of other-optimizing
When Buddhism goes bad
Let’s dive in!
🔬 Time to assume that health research is fraudulent until proven otherwise?
We covered many topics related to the shortcomings of scientific research and academia in general on The Long Game. This week, I read this piece from Richard Smith, who edited BMJ for 13 years, on the state of health research:
Stephen Lock, my predecessor as editor of The BMJ, became worried about research fraud in the 1980s, but people thought his concerns eccentric. Research authorities insisted that fraud was rare, didn’t matter because science was self-correcting, and that no patients had suffered because of scientific fraud. All those reasons for not taking research fraud seriously have proved to be false, and, 40 years on from Lock’s concerns, we are realising that the problem is huge, the system encourages fraud, and we have no adequate way to respond. It may be time to move from assuming that research has been honestly conducted and reported to assuming it to be untrustworthy until there is some evidence to the contrary.
As a follow-up on this, I recommend Fantastic Anachronism’s How Many Undetected Frauds in Science? that I already linked a few months ago.
Let's say that about half of all published research findings are false. How many of those are due to fraud? As a very rough guess I'd say that for every 100 papers that don't replicate, 2.5 are due to fabrication/falsification, and 85 are due to lighter forms of methodological fraud. This would imply that about 1% of fraudulent papers are retracted.
This is both good and bad news. On the one hand, while most fraud goes unpunished, it only represents a small portion of published research. On the other hand, it means that we can't fix reproducibility problems by going after fabrication/falsification: if outright fraud completely disappeared tomorrow, it would be no more than an imperceptible blip in the replication crisis. A real solution needs to address the "questionable" methods used by the median scientist, not the fabrication used by the very worst of them.
Finally, José Luis Ricón Fernández de la Puente came up with some ideas to fix all these problems with his Better Google Scholar:
Google Scholar is one of the marvels of the modern science ecosystem. Reportedly run by only a dozen of people and started a decade ago by Alex Verstak and Anurag Acharya, it's the most comprehensive and easier to use search engine there is to find scientific works including non-journal publications like preprints or even personal blogs. Whereas competitors come and go, Scholar remains. But it remains, to some extent unchanged. Sure it has added some features in recent years, described in the team's blog but what would an ideal Google Scholar look lile? This post is about that.
You can also check Connected Papers for a cool product helping you find related scientific papers.
📱 Restricting Social Media Use for Emotional Wellbeing
I think it’s safe to say that most people would argue that restricting the time spent on social media would improve one’s emotional wellbeing. This study tested the hypothesis and found some surprising results:
Screen time apps that allow smartphone users to manage their screen time are assumed to combat negative effects of smartphone use. This study explores whether a social media restriction, implemented via screen time apps, has a positive effect on emotional well-being and sustained attention performance.
A randomized controlled trial (N = 76) was performed, exploring whether a week-long 50% reduction in time spent on mobile Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube is beneficial to attentional performance and well-being as compared to a 10% reduction.
Unexpectedly, several participants in the control group pro-actively reduced their screen time significantly beyond the intended 10%, dismantling our intended screen time manipulation. Hence, we analyzed both the effect of the original manipulation (i.e. treatment-as-intended), and the effect of participants’ relative reduction in screen time irrespective of their condition (i.e. treatment-as-is). Neither analyses revealed an effect on the outcome measures. We also found no support for a moderating role of self-control, impulsivity or Fear of Missing Out. Interestingly, across all participants behavioral performance on sustained attention tasks remained stable over time, while perceived attentional performance improved. Participants also self-reported a decrease in negative emotions, but no increase in positive emotions.
It seems too soon to draw any hard conclusion. Still, it shows that we will need a lot of research better to understand the relationship between our technology and human well-being. Initiatives like the Human Screenome Project are encouraging steps in the right direction.
🧠 Better Thinking
❗ Beware of Other-Optimizing
I’ve touched a few times on the difficulty of giving good advice to people, mainly because advice is a mix of survivorship bias and advice that we give to ourselves.
I found this piece on the danger of “other-optimizing” excellent and worth sharing:
I've noticed a serious problem in which aspiring rationalists vastly overestimate their ability to optimize other people's lives. And I think I have some idea of how the problem arises.
You read nineteen different webpages advising you about personal improvement—productivity, dieting, saving money. And the writers all sound bright and enthusiastic about Their Method, they tell tales of how it worked for them and promise amazing results...
At long, long last you have discovered the real way, the right way, the way that actually works. And when someone else gets into the sort of trouble you used to have—well, this time you know how to help them. You can save them all the trouble of reading through nineteen useless pieces of advice and skip directly to the correct answer. As an aspiring rationalist you've already learned that most people don't listen, and you usually don't bother—but this person is a friend, someone you know, someone you trust and respect to listen.
And so you put a comradely hand on their shoulder, look them straight in the eyes, and tell them how to do it.
Sometimes the advice is helpful, but most of the time, the advice that worked for you worked because of the right timing, the right mindset, the right previous path, and might not be replicable in a different context. That’s why I try to stay away as much as possible from giving advice to anyone.
Maybe being pushed on does work... for you. Maybe you don't get sick to the stomach when someone with power over you starts helpfully trying to reorganize your life the correct way. I don't know what makes you tick. In the realm of willpower and akrasia and productivity, as in other realms, I don't know the generalizations deep enough to hold almost always. I don't possess the deep keys that would tell me when and why and for who a technique works or doesn't work. All I can do is be willing to accept it, when someone tells me it doesn't work... and go on looking for the deeper generalizations that will hold everywhere, the deeper laws governing both the rule and the exception, waiting to be found, someday.
⚡️ Startup Stuff
This week I read Alchemy by Rory Sutherland, and it’s a great reminder of some important concepts when building creative solutions.
Here are some takeaways I got from the book:
Departing from logic can help you craft creative solutions. Economists, policymakers, and business owners rely a lot on logic when trying to solve human problems and tend to assume humans are rational creatures driven by universal motivations. In reality, we are not.
If you want to influence people’s decisions, you have to abandon reason and conceive the realm of irrational possibilities.
Human behavior can’t always be explained by logic: countless behavioral economics books make this point, and the author summarizes the same idea.
Beware of the small things: small details are likely to have profound effects. Replacing a “Register” button with a “Continue” button can double or triple your conversion rate. It underlines the importance of experimenting with those small things.
Changes in small details can affect how humans interact: nothing about human perception is completely objective, and the smallest, most trivial things can affect the way we view the world.
There’s no such thing as an average consumer: we are all highly nuanced. That’s why businesses should be wary of designing products for what they see as the “average” consumer.
Powerful messages always contain an element of absurdity. Often we approve reasonable-sounding ideas far too quickly and discard nonsensical ones. But doing so can prevent us the most magical ideas. That’s why when it comes to making a real impact in society, it doesn’t pay to be logical.
Problem-solving requires psychological insight and a multi-pronged approach. For example, for businesses trying to solve their customers’ problems, it’s best to approach perception from a psychological perspective because changing a consumer’s perception of something is far easier and most cost-effective than changing the thing itself.
Sometimes, the most illogical ideas are the best ones. Think gravity, penicillin, microwave, etc., many of them were stumbled upon by accident. Remember that pursuing rogue ideas and taking risks is something that the world’s most successful entrepreneurs all did.
A little extra for this week in the startup world: be careful not to optimize for the wrong things. The goal is not to please the authorities anymore. It’s to build a fantastic product.
Discipline, focus, understanding when to copy and when to innovate, and ability to ignore what is not vitally important:
📚 What I Read
🧘♂️ When Buddhism Goes Bad
A thought-provoking piece on the dangers of meditation:
The type of meditation I had been practicing was jhana, a deep state of absorption concentration said to be essential in the Buddha’s awakening. All day I had been concentrating on my breath and scanning my body for various sensations. I had 13 days ahead of me to work, with the goal of experiencing highly refined states of awareness — and perhaps something beyond.
As I lay there musing in the brisk darkness, I suddenly sensed a tightening inside me. It was as if I was being ever so gently wound. Then quickly, the pressure intensified, and I breathed in rapid-fire staccato and violently shook. I was a guitar string being tuned beyond its highest range. The string popped. A spike of fear slashed through my guts. And that’s when I split apart.
The next four hours were a hellscape of terror, panic and paranoia. There were almost no thoughts, only my body begging to escape my skin, convulsing like a fish fighting for life. The fear was a bottomless trench.
⚠️ Why People Feel Like Victims?
There are a lot of discussions around victimhood lately. This is a good article to understand why:
In 2020, researchers in Israel, led by Rahav Gabray, a doctor of psychology at Tel Aviv University, conducted a series of empirical studies to come up with an answer. They identify a negative personality trait they call TIV or Tendency toward Interpersonal Victimhood. People who score high on a TIV test have an “enduring feeling that the self is a victim in different kinds of interpersonal relationships,” they write.
The study of TIV is built around four pillars. The first pillar is a relentless need for one’s victimhood to be clearly and unequivocally acknowledged by both the offender and the society at large. The second is “moral elitism,” the conviction that the victim has the moral high ground, an “immaculate morality,” while “the other” is inherently immoral. The third pillar is a lack of empathy, especially an inability to see life from another perspective, with the result that the victim feels entitled to act selfishly in response. The fourth pillar is Rumination—a tendency to dwell on the details of an assault on self-esteem.
You only need to spend only a few minutes watching or reading the news, in any country, to hear and see victimhood raging.
🌍 Disunited Nations (2020) vs. Dawn of Eurasia (2017)
I found this article to be an excellent summary and comparison of Peter Zeihan in Disunited Nations and Bruno Maçães in Dawn of Eurasia.
Where Zeihan’s future is determined, Maçães’ world is one of open slather. They sit across each other over the determinate vs indeterminate conception of history. They are not alone. Maçães has Peter Thiel and David Deutsch as companions, who virulently contend that the future is for us to create. If Thiel yearns for an optimistic determinate society, Zeihan is a pessimistic determinate, foreseeing an inevitable decline in world affairs. Maçães is probably an optimistic indeterminate, if optimistic mainly by temperament.
Thiel and Deutsch stand against theorists like Jarred Diamond, who in Guns, Germs and Steel argued that Western civilisational dominance stems from the fruits of its geography – the landscape, domesticable animals, climates. These allowed some peoples to conquer seas and far off shores, while constraining others from the ability to build cities, grow populations, scale armaments and win. Zeihan’s thesis is a geopolitical extension of Diamond’s geographic deterministic thesis.
🎙 Podcast Episodes of the Week
This week in podcasts:
Anya Fernald: Regenerative Farming and the Art of Cooking Meat
A refreshing conversation outside of tech about regenerative agriculture and how to cook meat: as a big fan of great meat, I enjoyed it and hope to find regenerative farms to visit and buy meat from in the future.
Vaccine policy, Big Tech, DeepMind's latest breakthrough, wealth creation, opportunity & more
I’ve been watching The All In Podcast religiously every week for months but haven’t featured it in the newsletter. The reason is that I really consider it more like a discussion with friends more than anything else. I love it because it’s a group of friends trying to make sense of the world without a predefined agenda.
🍭 Brain Food
🥇🥈🥉 The effects of competition outcomes on health: Evidence from the lifespans of U.S. Olympic medalists
I found this paper fascinating. It argues that regret can kill: 🥈 medal winners die 2.5 years before 🥇 & 4 before 🥉 because silver medalists see the outcome “as a loss and, through the associated psychological stress, have their health compromised & life expectancy reduced.”
This paper investigates the effects of competition outcomes on health by using U.S. Olympic medalists' lifespans and medal colors as a natural experiment. Whereas the life expectancies of gold and bronze medalists do not differ significantly, life expectancy of silver medalists is about 2.4 and 3.9 years less than these former, respectively. These findings are readily explainable by insights from behavioral economics, psychology, and human biology, which suggest that (perceived) dissatisfactory competition outcomes may adversely affect health. Competition outcomes that affect socioeconomic status (SES) could, therefore, play an important causal role in the positive SES-health gradient among the general population.
🎥 What I’m Watching
⌛ Timelapse of the Future
I already shared this masterpiece in the newsletter. I watch it once a month. It helps me zoom out. I’m always wondering until which part of the video humans will last.
🔫 Prepping for Doomsday
It’s been a while that I didn’t share anything related to prepping on the newsletter! I found this video entertaining and thought some of you might enjoy it. For a more serious article on the importance of some level of preparedness, read this.
🔧 The Tool of the Week
I recently came across Blas on Twitter. It’s a great place to discover new books through some short summaries. It made me want to read Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri next:
I have 3 main hypotheses: 1) Information influences politics because it is indigestible by a government’s justifying story; 2) the greater the diffusion of information to the public, the more illegitimate any political status quo will appear; 3) Homo informaticus, networked builder and wielder of the information sphere, poses an existential challenge to the legitimacy of every government he encounters
🪐 Quote I'm Pondering
“And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good.”
― John Steinbeck, East of Eden
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